Opinion
7 min

Two Catholic school graduates fact-check their sex-ed textbook, ‘Fully Alive’

It taught our Grade 7 selves everything we knew about sex. But we have concerns

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For Ontario Catholic elementary school students, Fully Alive is a staple. Think of the textbook as a religious guide to morality — and, for a single, infamous chapter taught to Grade 7 classes across the province, sex education. Students in Catholic schools today continue to learn about sexuality from Fully Alive. Whether the textbook will be replaced when the new curriculum just announced by Premier Doug Ford is implemented remains unknown.

Given all of the hubbub around sex ed in Ontario, we — both graduates of the Toronto Catholic District School Board — took a trip down memory lane, returning to the textbook that taught our Grade 7 selves everything we knew about sex. The goal: fact-check the lessons we learned, and see just how far astray Fully Alive led us.

“The male brain, the female brain” (page 74)

The claim: There are gendered differences in the brains of men and women.

The takeaway: We’ll give the writers kudos for admitting that researchers aren’t in agreement on this, but it should be more explicitly stated: this is a really contentious claim. Science has yet to determine whether brains differ based on our sex. And the relationship between sex, gender and biology is incredibly complex.

Female fertility (page 80)

The claim: Ovulation is “the starting point of human life.”

The takeaway: There’s this super weird photo of an ovary popping out an egg, which looks like an eyeball pushing out an Advil liquid gel. It’s referred to as “the starting point of human life,” which is just FALSE — the photo depicts ovulation, not conception. Also: why does the book show a realistic image of ovulation but not basic anatomy?

Sexually transmitted infections (page 88)

The claim: Chlamydia is the most commonly reported sexually transmitted infection in Canada and can result in infertility.

The takeaway: It’s true that chlamydia is the most common STI in the country, but it doesn’t result in infertility on its own. If left untreated, it can lead to other issues. Ten to 15 percent of women with untreated chlamydia will develop pelvic inflammatory disease, which could cause infertility.

The claim: Some sexually transmitted diseases can kill you.

The takeaway: That’s true when it comes to untreated HPV, HIV, hepatitis B and syphilis. However, the chapter doesn’t tell you how STIs can be treated, or which are incurable.

The claim: Young people between the ages of 15 and 24 have the highest rates of STIs in Canada.

The takeaway: This is true.

The claim: Young people “do not get regular medical checkups or share information about their sexual activities and their exposure to STIs. They aren’t thinking about the future.”

The takeaway: This is editorializing, not a fact. One of the reasons that STI rates are up in young Canadians is because in 2012, pap smears were limited to one every three years, starting at age 21 (if you were sexually active). So now we can’t detect STIs early enough, and since STI tests are also done during the pap, we’ve effectively cut down the checkups that sexually active teens are having. Plus, condom use among teenagers is still down, so STI rates have increased.

Also, how are youth who are experiencing Catholic guilt or have restrictive parents going to feel comfortable sharing their sexual health information, or even accessing their own doctor away from their parents surveillance? Studies have shown that abstinence-only education doesn’t succeed in reducing the rates of teen pregnancy and STIs, so Fully Alive just played itself: if young people are supposed to be abstinent, but are shamed for having sex or sexual thoughts, why would they share information about their sexual activities and sexual health?

This also implies that young people who have sex are somehow ruining their lives and don’t care about their sexual health. The reality is that teen pregnancy has dropped to an all-time low in the US (due to more contraceptive options), and in Ontario, students organized walk-outs to protest Ford’s announcement that he was repealing comprehensive sex ed. And a US survey found that teen sex and drug use is down, but depression and suicidal thoughts are growing. We think this says a lot about the ways we perceive and stereotype young people: we’re so worried that they’re going to turn into sex-crazed heathens, but they’re actually dealing with so many other issues.

Homosexuality (page 94)

The claim: Two to five percent of the population is homosexual.

The takeaway: Us queers are so lucky to have one — just one! — page dedicated to our sexual orientations. We want to applaud Fully Alive for acknowledging that feelings for and curiosity of the same sex “are a normal part of development, especially in early adolescence.” But that’s about as far as the textbook goes in terms of good LGBTQ2 representation.

For starters, there’s this claim, which suggests that only a tiny fraction of the world identifies as gay. In the context of the section, the implication is that the reader is probably not gay, that such a small percentage of the population identifies as such and what are the odds you would, too!

But these statistics minimize reality. A Gallup poll from 2002 found more than 20 percent of American men and women identify as gay or lesbian. More recently, in 2013, a study from the US National Bureau of Economic Research yielded similar results. Other studies, like one compiled by the Williams Institute at UCLA, which suggests that percentage might be lower, reminds us that 9 million Americans identify as LGBTQ2 — a figure about the size of New Jersey. And Generation Z, many of whom are currently high-schoolers, are incredibly queer: only 66 percent identify as straight.

The claim: The fear of people whose orientation is homosexual is called homophobia.

The takeaway: This isn’t technically wrong, but it is an awfully literal definition. This claim suggests that homophobia is as natural as any other fear, that it’s like being afraid of heights or spiders. A more nuanced definition of homophobia would note that it includes negative attitudes and feelings toward queer people because of their sexual orientations — as well as discrimination. (An inclusion of “transphobia” would be nice, too — but trans people are non-existent in this book and warrant no mention by the authors.)

In our research, we also came across a guide for teachers written by the Catholic Association of Religious and Family Life Educators, offering resources for educators teaching from the Fully Alive textbook. They’ve suggested the Wikipedia article on homophobia as an apt resource, describing it as “balanced.” We would’ve failed assignments if we cited Wikipedia, just saying.

The claim: Young people develop temporary attractions to members of the same sex.

The takeaway: This is one of those instances where the authors appear to be minimizing the reality of same-sex attraction. They may as well be screaming at 12-year-old queer kids through the pages: it’s just a phaaaaaase.

A bit of digging into the science also shows that youth experiencing same-sex attractions can experience a spectrum of feelings — it’s not linear, and it changes over time. And according to one researcher, there’s no suggestion that youth who are attracted to the same sex will certainly experience those feelings temporarily. It really just depends, from case to case.

Masturbation (page 96)

The claim: “Masturbation leads people into self-centredness, but God’s gift of sexuality is intended to lead us toward others.”

The takeaway: We don’t even know where to begin with this one. This is obviously not true. But if we want to get granular, the benefits of masturbation are overwhelmingly positive and well-documented: it releases sexual tension, reduces stress, helps you sleep better, improves self-esteem and body image, can lower the risk of prostate cancer and can boost your mood. It also relieves the sexual tension that GOD SAYS IS BAD!!

The claim: Sex “is one of the many gifts that a man and a woman experience and offer each other within the committed relationship of marriage.”

The takeaway: Ugh, so many things wrong with this statement. First, sex is not a gift or an offering; this reinforces the idea, especially for women, that you must give yourself to a man “unspoiled.” It’s the same language used when we talk to women about saving their virginity for marriage. It really separates sex as a natural part of being a human and turns it into something that is a reward for the other person, as opposed to pleasurable for you too. This also narrows down sex as something that only happens between a man and a woman, and that the only way you can have a committed relationship is through marriage.

The claim: “Pornography is harmful for everyone, especially males, who are the main users of pornography. They are more quickly aroused than females, particularly by visual images.”

The takeaway: Wrong. The differences in how men and women respond to sexual visual stimuli and their levels of sexual arousal have been poorly documented. This relies on the idea that men are always sexually ready and aroused, while women are more passive and less interested in sex. NOT TRUE! There was a detailed report in 2017 on gender and porn consumption that found that while porn had no negative consequences on women’s sexual satisfaction, it did for men, but this is only one study and it can’t confirm that porn is more harmful to men than women.

Ask Sophia: Fully Alive’s take on a peer-to-peer advice column (page 102)

The claim: “Research in Canada and the US has shown that girls who start dating at a very young age, especially with someone who is more than two years older, are vulnerable to physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.”

The takeaway: It’s true that, according to Statistics Canada, survivors are often sexually assaulted by someone who is older than them. But there isn’t any correlation between the age that someone begins dating and experiencing abuse or assault. In fact, the average age gap between sexual assault survivor and perpetrator is 13 years. One in five sexual assaults on young people with a charge laid may meet the criteria of pedophilia, and more than half of these cases involved a child sexually assaulted by an older family member.

On the contrary, survivors are more likely to be physically assaulted by someone in their peer group who is within a five-year gap, but Stats Can doesn’t attribute this to dating.

The final takeaway:

While some of the chapter is slightly more progressive, it still reinforces a lot of outdated ideas about queer and trans people, women and sexual attraction. Even the template letter that gets sent out to parents to make them aware that their children will learn about ungodly things says so. “Despite your best efforts, however, your children will be exposed to ideas about sexuality that are not Christian. They will also hear about topics such as abortion, pornography or gay marriage, and will likely have questions about these issues.”

Given the current state of sex ed in Ontario — and elsewhere, because this debate is not exclusive to the province, or even the country — it makes us wonder what more we can do to make sure kids are getting an egalitarian and thoughtful sex education.

Until we figure that out, we’re off to take some cold showers to deal with all of these resurfaced repressed thoughts.